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September 20, 2014

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In GQ story, Jerry Lewis shows he’s hardly ready to retire

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Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun

Jerry Lewis celebrates a new tally during the final hour of the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon at the South Point in 2010.

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon Preparations

Jerry Lewis shoots a photo of his band to determine the height of their platforms during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point.  This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy. Launch slideshow »

2010 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

The 2010 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon at South Point. Ace Young, Nigel Lythgoe and David Archuleta are pictured here. Launch slideshow »
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Jerry Lewis is overcome with joyful tears after receiving a multimillion-dollar check from the International Association of Firefighters during the final hour of the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon at South Point.

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Jerry Lewis, interviewed on his yacht in October.

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Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon at the Sahara on Sept. 5, 1976.

GQ has dedicated much of its August edition, on newsstands this week, to the art of comedy, and a healthy measure of that edition is focused on an 85-year-old Las Vegan.

In a lengthy, yet rapid-fire, profile, writer Amy Wallace pulls the curtain back on a Jerry Lewis that seems hardly apt to retire from any phase of his career or life. She spent 11 hours, total, with Lewis in assembling the story, and what is unearthed should come as little surprise to anyone who has observed Lewis over the past couple of years.

The still-vibrant entertainer who supposedly “retired” from his MDA Telethon back in May (an account of that I find impossible to swallow) is juggling several projects for this year and into next.

The documentary that filmmaker Gregg Barson has been filming for the past three years, titled “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis," is due this fall on Encore.

He is in talks with John Travolta, a reality confirmed by both, to remake the 1965 film “The Family Jewels.”

He is planning to launch another telethon in Australia, where he fell dizzy last month and had to cancel an appearance on behalf of that country’s Muscular Dystrophy Foundation. The MDF is unaffiliated with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

He is working on a screenplay, the details of which are being kept secret, and is to star in the independent film “Max Rose,” which is not yet financed.

And, to fill out his schedule, he is working on a stage adaptation of “The Nutty Professor,” which he plans to direct and is scored by Marvin Hamlisch.

To reiterate: This does not sound like a man who would find hosting a whittled-down, six-hour MDA Telethon at all taxing. More on that later, but in the GQ story, Lewis did say this of his commitment to helping children suffering from illness: “I understand naysayers. His kids. But they are mine, and I am too far into it to step back.”

More highlights from the interview:

• From Martin Scorsese: “He makes many people uncomfortable. He doesn’t censor himself as a performer, a filmmaker or a public figure -- which is difficult to accept for many people. I know there have been some books about him and some recognition in the past few years, but I think Americans are still coming to terms with Jerry and his astonishing artistry. It’s as if they had to invent a new place for it, a new category.” Scorsese also added, “Jerry Lewis is still ahead of his time.”

• From Jerry Seinfeld, a comment drawn from the “Method to Madness” documentary: “If you don’t get Jerry Lewis, you don’t really understand comedy, because he is the essence of it.”

• Speaking of today’s young comics, Lewis describes Will Ferrell as, “A wonderful technician. He does the script well. And he won’t be here in eight years. He is a very good mechanic, but never expect a mechanic to hold you in his arms. He doesn’t know how to do that. And you need that quality to have longevity. Of Seinfeld, he says he “has a heart on both sides.” And Chris Rock is “very, very, powerful. He comes from the place it’s supposed to come from. My great-grandchildren will enjoy him.”

• In one of his characteristic conversational U-turns, Lewis insists that John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe never had an affair. As he stresses, “I’m telling you what I know because I did. OK?” Asked what that experience was like, Lewis says, “It was … long. I was crippled for a month. (Pause) And I thought Marlene Dietrich was great!”

• Lewis was treated by a “shrink,” for a time. The doctor told him it would be a mistake to undergo further analysis. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked. The doctor told him, “Well, if we peel away the emotional and psychological difficulties, your pain may leave, but it’s also quite possible that you won’t have a reason to be funny anymore.”

• Lewis took so much Percodan and Numbutal in the 1970s that, to him, 1973 to 1977 are a complete blackout. This covers his famed appearance in the 1976 Labor Day Telethon in which Dean Martin strode onstage for a surprise on-air reunion orchestrated by Frank Sinatra.

• Lewis’ name in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” was originally Robert Langford, but Lewis persuaded Scorsese to instead name the talk show host character Jerry Langford. He told the director, “Everywhere we go in New York, your construction workers and cab drivers will validate that it’s Jerry.” He adds, “And that’s what happened. If you remember, in the movie, whenever I was in the street: ‘Hey, Jerry,’ ‘Yo, Jer.’ ‘Hey there, you old schmuck.’ It worked great for us. Whenever I went to New York, that’s what happened. It still happens.”

• Wants to live to be 101, to beat George Burns, a promise he made to Burns once during an MDA Telethon. “It was a joke,” Lewis says. “That’s all it was.” A pause, then, “Now it’s no joke.”

That’s how the GQ story ends, but not Lewis’.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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